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Illinois Basketball Player Preview: Andre Curbelo

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The sophomore is a special, special talent.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 14 Big Ten Tournament - Ohio State v Illinois Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I have never seen a player like Andre Curbelo.

I’ve watched a lot of basketball in my life. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of different players take the court at some level or another. Andre Curbelo can do things on a basketball court that none of those thousands of players can.

If you’ve watched him play, you know what I’m talking about.

He teleports on the basketball court. He has eyes on the back of his head. The ball is telekinetically connected to his hand.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he was an alien.

If you haven’t watched him play, well, just watch a few minutes of his highlights. My brother dubbed him “The Human Glitch,” and I think you’ll see why.

Strengths

As I’m sure you can tell from his highlights, Curbelo’s biggest strength is his passing. Even as a freshman, his assist percentage of 34.4% led the Big Ten last year. In other words, when Curbelo was on the floor, 34.4% of his teammate’s field goals were assisted by him. That’s… really high.

But to just call him a passer doesn’t do him justice. I think a better word would be “creator.” He can create shots for himself with his quickness off the bounce. If help comes, he’s an incredibly quick processor and can find the open man. Even if a shooter makes an extra pass and he doesn’t get the assist, it’s still Curbelo who created the advantage and put the defense in rotation. Put simply, he’s a point guard’s point guard.

(Some free advice for opposing defenses: don’t blitz Curbelo’s pick and rolls.)

What makes him unique, though, is that he can still create shots outside of the flow of the offense. Lots of players can run pick and rolls and make the pass the play tells them to. But against good defenses, the “right play” often isn’t available. That’s where Curbelo comes in. Take last year’s Baylor game as an example. Baylor’s defense — the driving force behind its national championship — is predicated on keeping opponents out of the middle of the floor. Even against Illinois’ offense, it was mostly successful at that. The exception was Curbelo. Baylor did everything it could to keep the ball out of the middle, but he found the middle of the floor anyway. He finished the game with 11 points and 4 assists in just 16 minutes against one of the best defenses in the nation.

Naturally, given his quickness and ability as a passer, Curbelo is fantastic in transition as well. He’s a sneaky good rebounder too, averaging 4 rebounds in under 22 minutes per game last year. Pair that with his skill in the transition, and he creates a lot of fast break points.

Weaknesses

Curbelo’s strengths jump off the page, but the reason he came off the bench last year is that his weaknesses do too.

Most glaring is his propensity to turn the ball over. He led the Big Ten in assist percentage last year, but he also led the conference in turnover percentage. To a certain extent, those things go hand in hand. If you often have the ball in your hands, you’ll get a lot of assists and also a lot of turnovers.

The problem was how he turned the ball over. Let’s say Curbelo throws a contested lob to Kofi Cockburn. It maybe has a 60% chance of ending in a dunk and a 40% chance of getting picked off. Turning the ball over in that situation is fine. The outcome was bad, but the process was good. The play just happened to be in the 40% of bad outcomes.

But many of Curbelo’s turnovers were sloppy. Part of that is being a freshman, and I expect him to cut down on the silly mistakes this year. I wonder how much of the sloppiness just comes with the territory with Curbelo though. It’s possible that to be at his best, he has to be a little bit out of control. I guess we’ll find out this year.

His other glaring weakness is his outside shooting. Curbelo made just 5 threes in 31 attempts last year, and both of those numbers are a problem. Five is a problem because that means he shot just .161 from beyond the arc. That’s obviously not going to cut it.

Thirty-one is a problem, though, because it means defenses don’t even have to honor his jumper on the perimeter. Curbelo can’t space the floor effectively without the ball because his defender can help off of him without having to worry about getting beat from the outside. When he does have the ball, defenses know by now to go under the screen on pick and rolls. Curbelo is talented enough to often beat defenses when they go under anyway, but he would be even more lethal in pick and rolls if he could shoot. So when he made this three in Friday’s exhibition, let’s just say my eyebrow was raised.

To be clear, I don’t expect him to actually become a real pull-up shooting threat. It would be massive for Illinois’ offense if he could beat under coverage with his shooting, or if he at least forced defenders to chase over the screen. Much more likely, however, is that he becomes a catch-and-shoot threat, making 30ish% of his threes to keep defenses honest.

One last small weakness is that Curbelo is, well, small. He’s listed at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, which means he can only really defend other point guards. His defense wasn’t great last year, but Brad Underwood has shown an exceptional ability to develop defenders so I think Curbelo will be mostly fine on that end. But I worry that teams will try to get him switched onto larger players, and I’m not confident he can handle those matchups. I don’t envision it being a major issue though, because Illinois’ great team defense should mostly make up for Curbelo’s size.

Outlook

Despite his weaknesses, Curbelo has gotten a lot of love from the media this preseason. Dick Vitale named him a preseason fourth-team All-American. He was placed on the Bob Cousy Award watch list for best point guard in America. The Athletic ranked him as the third best guard in college basketball. Field of 68’s Jeff Goodman even went so far as to name him a preseason first-team All-American.

Clearly, Curbelo is almost certainly going to have a great season. But I would be surprised if he’s an All-American.

I would love to be wrong, and I do think he has an All-American ceiling. But he hasn’t even started a real college basketball game yet. I expect Curbelo to improve a lot from last season, and with Ayo Dosunmu gone, he’ll have many more opportunities to showcase his talent. Becoming an All-American just feels like a stretch for a guy who wasn’t even an honorable mention All-Big Ten.

Speaking of All-Big Ten teams though, I think that should be the expectation. The Big Ten probably has too much talent this year for Curbelo to earn a first-team selection, but second-team All-Big Ten is very realistic, even likely.

But regardless of the exact accolades, Belo is an exceptionally fun basketball player. I’m going to have a whole lot of fun watching him.